In common vernacular, experience is often equated with wisdom, but in reality, the two are not the same. Wisdom is the result of lessons learned through experience. Take away the learning, and you are left only with experience — not a wise thing to do.
My grandmothers present an interesting study in contrast. Although they are both gone now, I remember them fondly.
Fundamentally different people, they had several similarities. They were both old, wrinkled and funny. They wore strange clothes, had glasses, and removable teeth. They also lived through the same time period moving West in covered wagons as little girls, and living through WW I, WW II and the Great Depression. However, that is where the similarities ended.
My mom’s mom was fiercely independent. That was an unusual characteristic for the time period, especially in Texas. She said things as she saw them, and she didn’t have a problem telling someone to, “Go butt a stump!” if she didn’t agree. She was also incredibly inquisitive taking nothing for granted. She loved reading, Elvis and all things new. She was the first to own a car in Parker County, and she drove it to town the first day. As she told the story, the trip to town was fine, but after putting the car in reverse to pull away from the curb, the gear stuck leaving her to back all the way home. Her lesson learned was to park parallel, so that she never had to use the reverse gear again. She also added that reading the owner’s manual before operating complicated and unfamiliar machinery was a good idea.
My dad’s mom was different. She was a wonderful person and very proper. She was tall and thin with curly white hear like the little old ladies depicted in greeting card illustrations. Her house was filled with lace and smelled of naphthalene and chocolate chips. She took life as it came, and although she never seemed to get a break, she was resigned to accept her fate. She had a routine from which she did not wander, and her only source of outside information was the Merkel Mail which was delivered once a week.
Of the two, it was always my mother’s mom that taught me the most. She was an advocate of experiential learning. She encouraged me to eat my first and only bug, a rollie pollie. It was not a pleasant experience, and I spit it out yelling “Yuk!” Her response, “Well, now you know.”
If you are wondering why our family tree is so crooked, it is because I am trying as hard as I can to lean toward the branches on my mother’s side. I hope to be wise someday — not just weathered.
Learning, the source of wisdom, is only available to us when we are willing to extract it from our experiences. In some cases we will be able to schedule these growth opportunities, and in other cases they will come unannounced. In either case we must be willing and ready to cultivate our wisdom. Passive observation is not enough.
This article was written by David Harwell, Assistant Director of the Department of Career Management and Development. Originally published in the chemistry.org newsletter on March 5, 2007.